Viewpoint - December 7, 2011

Editorial: Parenting in the age of wide-open alcohol

The arrest of William Burnett and what some describe as the harsh treatment of his wife when police came to his home to break up a party of teenagers who were said to be under the influence brings into focus the difficulty of parenting in an age when the pleasures of alcohol are splashed across the very media channels that attract this impressionistic audience.

Mr. Burnett learned a tough lesson on the night of Nov. 25 when he was arrested by police for allowing his house to be used for a party of teenagers celebrating a Menlo-Atherton High School football victory and, police said, consuming alcohol.

But that did not save Mr. Burnett from the embarrassment of being handcuffed and hauled off to county jail, where he stayed for eight hours. Formal charges have not been filed, but the Burnetts have retained an attorney to plead their case.

Mr. Burnett's daughter, Eliza, who was not there at the time, wrote a blistering critique based on what she was told of the conduct displayed by the officers on the scene that night, which included a claim that her mother, who had recently undergone back surgery, was forced to stand outside in the cold weather without the walker she was using at the time.

She also claims police exercised little restraint as they pulled teenagers from the house and lined them up outside for questioning and then forced them to call their parents for a ride home.

The case is a perfect example of the dilemma parents face when it comes to the use of alcohol by their sons and daughters.

Should teenagers be allowed to drink at home under parental supervision, or should youngsters be left to their own devices to find and consume alcohol at unchaperoned parties, often at homes where unsuspecting parents might be away.

Given the Menlo Park police reaction on Nov. 25, it may be a fool's choice for parents to supervise and provide alcohol for teenage parties in their own home. So, despite the best of intentions to educate teenagers about the dangers of illegally consuming beer and wine and other alcoholic beverages, the reality is they see multiple brands for sale in supermarkets and convenience stores, and promoted during coverage of most college and professional athletic competition.

In the case of Mr. Burnett, who is a Stanford professor and hardly a flight risk, it appears that officers may have overreacted. This was not the first or the last house party in Menlo Park or Atherton attended by teenagers with alcohol present, so the city should set a protocol to make sure everyone's rights are protected. Nevertheless, Mr. Burnett and the teenagers should have known that they were breaking the law. It is one thing for parents to expose their own children to an occasional alcoholic beverage at home, but when more than 40 teenagers are hanging out and drinking heartily in celebration, the line has been crossed.

Perhaps Mr. Burnett did receive harsh treatment, and booking him into jail seems excessive, but we doubt if the family will be able to mount a successful protest against the officers involved. The bottom line message from the Menlo Park police: large house parties attended by underage teens who are consuming alcohol will be shut down and the adults responsible for the home will be cited. That is the law.


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